The Trouble With NHL Referees

NHL referees

Many have accused Tim Peel (and other NHL referees) of trying to “balance out” a game. That’s not exactly a secret – Peel said as much himself, in fact. But few realize what that means.

Sitting in Judgement

“How would you like a job where every time you made a mistake a red light goes on and 15,000 people boo?”

There are different versions of the Jacques Plante quote running around, but the meaning doesn’t change. The flip side of that, of course, is if you do your job well 15,000 people stand up and cheer.

Unless you’re a referee.

Any sport, any time, any league. By some tenets, if you notice the refs, then they failed. In some sports – baseball and football come to mind – the referee (yes, I know) is involved in every play. Every single pitch relies on an umpire’s call. In football, even if every other aspect was perfect, on non-scoring downs they need referees to determine where the next play starts. In others, like basketball or soccer, the referee is there primarily to witness fair play. If a rule gets broken, then they get involved. The offending player/team is dealt with and play continues.

Funny story: the offending player/team rarely agrees with the referee’s decision. So things can get interesting.

Hockey is, of course, a delightfully ridiculous game. It’s played on a surface that can break bones balanced on steel blades in the literally freezing cold. The puck is… well, it’s nothing else in the world. Flip it and there’s no telling where it will bounce. Oh, and it’s broken plenty of bones itself. But the real trick is that it’s continuous. Changes can happen instantly, and anyone not ready for that gets left behind.

Referee Prerequisites

Refereeing in any league is hard, and not just physically. They need to be in shape, obviously, but are rarely asked to put forward the same effort the athletes themselves do. On the other hand, it’s not often that kids’ leagues have a problem recruiting players. Those same kids’ leagues across North America have one hell of a time retaining referees. We aren’t going to bother linking to video examples, but we’re pretty sure you can imagine why.

Some leagues have just a 30 percent retention rate after a single year. There’s often no pay involved in being a local referee, and the abuse that can be hurled at them is ridiculous. There are different campaigns to try to improve matters. It can be as simple as reminding the adults that these are in fact kids they’re yelling at. Personally, we think there should be more court cases where abusive fans are forced to ref junior for a year. Beats putting a drunk driver in as coach, anyway.

“But that’s not the NHL!” No, but they have to come from somewhere. You can’t even apply to be NHL referees without five years experience in junior plus another three at the minor/collegiate level.

The Ones Who Become NHL Referees

According to Scouting the Refs, there are 33 NHL referees and 31 NHL linesmen ready to go this season. They have 10 more referees in the minors but available to be called up and five linesmen. Pay is very good, relatively speaking: linesmen start at six figures, refs nearly twice that. It’s quite the step up from the pre-1993 strike rates of $50,000 to start, up to $80K after a decade. The pressure at the top level is massive, of course, but it always has been.

There’s the potential for criticism outside the game, naturally, but mostly they are dealing with the players and coaches with them on the ice. The players and coaches both know that without the refs there’s no game. It just doesn’t happen. They often talk to each other throughout the three-ish hours they are working together, and yes, sometimes the talk is angry. But one of the referee’s jobs is to keep everything – including himself – calm.*

It’s not a one-way street, though. The players are being relied on not to lie about their injuries or complain about the calls. Too much, anyway. The notoriously public Alexandre Burrows – Stephane Auger fight came out of that. Coaches “gaming the ref” or loudly complaining about phantom missed calls in the hopes of getting leniency later is a popular tactic. But if that coach gets carried away, it can earn him a minor penalty itself.

Point is, no one’s perfect. NHL referees are literally the top of the chain, but… well, you know.

The Trouble With Tim Peel (and Other NHL Referees)

When you heard Tim Peel talk about “wanting to call a penalty on Nashville” it was because he felt that he had blown a call earlier in the game. That went in Nashville’s favour, and the players probably knew it.

And that’s the crux of it. The players – all of them, not just the ones on Detroit – knew it was a weak call. Those same players knew they were likely to get a “make-up call” later in the game. That’s a big deal because they have to trust the referees to “get it right,” which in this case means making up for an earlier error.

Those mistakes happen in a game. Calls get missed. Whistles get blown early or late. Battles in front of the net get ignored. And what the NHL referees don’t have that literally everyone else does is 40 different angles, slo-mo, instant replay, or 15:30 of air time to fill. Even coaches have tablets on the bench getting the broadcast angles. But only after the play, where it’s too late to make the right call but never too late to complain about it.

And now there’s gambling┬áinvolved. Frikkin’ yay.

The Four-Hour Standard

We’re all here because we like hockey, yes? What’s your favourite part? The commercial breaks? When they replace the glass? The interminable offside review from a coach’s challenge? Which they can also get wrong because they want it to be quick? Waiting for the War Room to call off another goal?

You get where this is going. And you’re not the first person to get here.

When there is a new ‘crackdown’ announced – and there have been plenty of calls for refs to “call everything by the book” after the Peel incident – one result is more penalties. A leads to B, not that complicated. But that doesn’t eliminate human error, which happens every game. In this case, the errors will probably tend to the conservative, as it does when greater scrutiny is underway.

This is, odd as it seems, not an argument against calling the game “by the book”. But it is a warning that it will take time to adjust to the new strictures. That is going to be for refs, players, coaches… and fans. It could make for longer, choppy games, especially at first. Yes, the flow of the game is what most of us love to see, and that will get hampered. But if it results in a better – fairer – game, so be it.

If that feels too slow? Accept that sometimes NHL referees are going to blow the call. Then, GET RID OF THE OFFSIDES VIDEO REVIEW! Just a suggestion.

*Fun side note: Kerry Fraser was rather famous for not “sacrificing his guys” – telling the linesmen to break up a fight. He would tell the players to sort it out or knock it off, but he wasn’t going to exhaust the zebras’ helpers by getting them into a “Hold Me Back!” pantomime.

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